Monday, November 21, 2011

The Astro-tude example: "Network" revisited

The entire nation was treated to a display of callow youthfulness last week when 15-year-old Astro (I thought he was twelve until somebody set me straight) threw a classic temper tantrum on the TV music contest "The X-Factor," after viewers placed him in the bottom two.

Media have been awash with play-by-plays of the meltdown, as if what he had done were only a few cuts below a game-losing play in the Super Bowl, or a national disaster.

He's fifteen, for Pete's sake.  Cut the kid some slack.  Or maybe you think we should take him out back and beat the crap out of him.  Obviously I'm kidding.  Are you?

We have gotten way too entitled in what we believe we have a right to see on television.  Not too long ago, there WAS no reality TV - only the 1976 movie "Network," starring Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway.  Consider "Network" to be something like Orwell's "1984," only for the future course of television instead of for the whole world.

When my compatriots and I first saw "Network" in our callow youth, some 35 years ago, we were dead certain it could never happen here.  The sheer outrageousness of it all - only in the movies could such a thing happen.

Most of my main characters, if you have been reading my novel "Corners" (blogged below), would have felt the same way.  On the other hand, the "alternative" ones would have expected it, even embraced it and participated in it, if given the chance.  But I digress.

In "Network," one of the major affiliates decides to program a new series starring a fading newscaster (Finch) who is beginning to lose his mind, making him out to be some kind of soothsayer.  He makes predictions on his own national show and systematically melts down week by week, in front of the viewing audience, as his mind reaches the breaking point.
In the fictitious world of the movie, this makes for awesome ratings.  He whips the nation into a shared frenzy with his ranting, inspiring millions to hang out their front windows and scream, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE!" (which is a boomer mantra to this day, by the way).  To the Network, this simply means everybody's watching!  Good sign, says the Network.

In the movie, advertising commitments go through the roof.  Viewership is at an all time high.  Then, disaster strikes - Finch's diatribes go too far even for his smarm-drunk audience, and ratings drop precipitously.  The Network has to "take him out" by hiring revolutionaries to assassinate him on camera (newsmakers!), thereby restoring a winning lineup.  

In 1976, "Network" was considered a cautionary tale.  Not so today.  Today, minus the revolutionary assassins, it's reality.  Reality television, that is.

Consider Russell Armstrong, husband to Taylor Armstrong, of the "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."  In the wake of nationally televised accusations of spousal abuse combined with financial strife, he killed himself.  Killed himself - that's right.  Even after his death, the episodes depicting the real-life events that precipitated his demise, already in the can as the tragedy occurred, are being aired weekly as we speak.

Also consider "Bad Girls' Club," a literal blow-by-blow aired weekly on the Oxygen channel, which is supposed to be the women's network.

On "Bad Girl's Club," young ladies with obvious mental illnesses and/or addictions - or whom I am guessing have been raised  in extreme poverty, or with incest, abuse, or neglect - live out their dysfunctions before us, trapped together in a network-funded house.  They beat the hell out of one another; engage in alcoholic binges, orgies, and other gratuitous sex; mortally insult one another; steal each others' boyfriends - and the beat goes on, so to speak.  In other words, the suffering and shame which have been visited upon each of their hearts and souls through their saddest life experiences is exploited for our viewing pleasure.  Heinous.

What poor Astro went through in front of us was at least a relatively run-of-the-mill, albeit less than perfect, childish episode.  Being a child, he did not deserve to be exposed in his spoiled and callow glory in front of us all.  He deserved simply to be severely scolded by his beloved mother and sent to bed early, grounded with no cell phone or computer for a week.

So how is it he came to be so exposed?

In a massive brain fart of bad judgment, the Network recently amended its policy to allow children under the age of sixteen to strut the reality stage, right alongside 21 and 30 and 40 and even 60 year-olds, on the field of competition.

Why?  Because they're just so doggone FASCINATING and exotic, these kids, to be that GOOD and that young at the same time.

Sick.  This is just plain unvarnished bad policy, not to mention bad for the very kids the Network purports to help.

To know that this is deliberately exploitative, all you have to do is watch the Network announce the surviving X-Factor contestants each week, "in no particular order."

They hold the results of the very youngest contestants - 13 and 14 and 15 years old - until the bitter end.  As each one is grandly announced, their result is held dangling and twisting over a chasm of silence as the audience waits and quivers in shared terror with them.  Then, the names are read, one at a time.

Watch as 13-year-old Rachel collapses in breathless sobs on Simon Cowell's breast, barely able to stand.  The heartless Simon, moved to tenderness, strokes her back and holds her till she gathers herself enough to walk off stage.

Watch as 15-year-old Drew chokes on her own tears, clutching her shirt as she staggers off in a combination of shock and relief, not yet sure of her joy in it all, moaning.

You can't tell me that isn't staged to deliberately squeeze and wring the softness of their youthful hearts, bruising them just enough to entertain us.

Astro stumbled, God bless him.  He needs an afternoon reading the book of James, not to face his own shame on national television.

We and the FCC and LA Reid and Simon Cowell, and every other grownup within reach, deserve a horsewhipping for allowing a Network to do him that way, for allowing him to stand there in the first place.

But not Astro.  Astro simply deserves the gift of time with his mom, another couple of years to grow.   Most important, he deserves to be GUARANTEED, by the very industry that tried to eat him alive, that he will have a place among their brightest stars one day - when he's old enough.  And when that happens, we need to be standing there, forgiving him.


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